“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Seven “The Shepherds” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Seven “The Shepherds” Commentary

The seventh episode of “CENTENNIAL” is set thirteen years after Episode Six. And it is a doozy. Although I would not consider this episode to be the best of the miniseries, I definitely believe it is one of the better ones.

Some of the events of the last two episodes end up having major consequences in this episode, set in 1881. The feud between farmer Hans Brumbaugh and the English rancher Oliver Seccombe spill out in an ugly range war between the region’s farmers and the ranchers, led by Seccombe. Acting as the ranchers’ hired guns are members from the Pettis gang, the same outlaws that had attacked the Skimmerhorn/Poteet cattle drive, in the last episode. After killing several farmers, whose land Seccombe managed to purchase, the Pettis boys set their sights on Brumbaugh’s farm. However, they encounter stiff resistance from Hans, his family and two men from the Venneford Ranch – John Skimmerhorn, who is now ranch foreman; and Jim Lloyd, now a strapping 27 year-old ranch hand.

Brumbaugh turns to Centennial’s sheriff for justice, but Axel Dumire is reluctant to move against the Pettis boys, claiming that no one could identify them as the attackers. However, the ranchers’ focus upon the farmers transfer to a new enemy, with the arrival of one Messmore Garrett. The latter decides to settle near Centennial in order to raise sheep – something that cattle ranchers find abhorrent. Three men from the previous cattle drive end up working for Garrett – Nate Pearson, Bufe Coker (who was a former Venneford ranch hand) and Amos Calendar. The feud between Garrett and the ranchers spill into an ugly shootout that leaves Pearson, Coker and the latter’s lady love, a former Cheyenne prostitute named Fat Laura, dead. As the only surviving shepherd, Calendar recruits his former fellow cowhand, Jim Lloyd and Brumbaugh to seek vengeance against the Pettis boys.

More personal matters also loomed large in this episode. Levi Zendt, just barely into his sixties, receive a visit from his Lancaster nephew, Christian Zendt, and gives him a tour of Centennial. Christian’s visit leads Levi to visit his hometown in Pennsylvania one last time. Brumbaugh’s struggles to find decent farmhands leads him to hire a family of Japanese immigrants named Takemoto. Love also hits Centennial in this episode. Jim Lloyd falls in love with Levi and Lucinda’s wayward daughter, Clemma; who feels no affection towards him whatsoever. And Oliver Seccombe meets two visitors from England – a British investor named Claude Richards and Charlotte Buckland, the daughter of another investor – and ends falling in love and marrying the latter.

Screenwriter Charles Larson and director Virgil W. Vogel really did an outstanding job with this episode. I thought they did a great job in balancing the various storylines – including the romances, Levi Zendt’s memories of the past via a visit from his nephew, and Brumbaugh’s labor problems. But the episode’s pièce de résistance were the range wars that threatened to overwhelm the region surrounding Centennial. It is believed that James Michner had based this particular chapter on the infamous Johnson County War in 1892. This was very apparent in three brutal action scenes featuring the attack on the Brumbaugh farm (shot at night), the attack on Bufe Coker and Fat Laura’s homestead, and the vigilante attack on the Pettis gang.

The amount of violence featured in this episode seemed to contrast rather well with the more dramatic scenes directed beautifully by Vogel. I was especially taken by the romantic scenes between Seccombe and Charlotte, Brumbaugh’s meeting with the Takemoto family, and Amos Calendar’s heartfelt speech about the bonds of brotherhood, as he convinces Jim to seek vengeance against the Pettis boys. Apparently, those bonds formed during the Skimmerhorn cattle drive had failed to disappear, despite the brutal range wars. But the one scene that brought tears to my eyes turned out to be Levi and Lucinda’s emotional parting, as he prepares to board an eastbound train for Pennsylvania.

If “The Shepherds” had one fault, it was its running time. A great deal of narrative and characterization occurred in this particular episode. And not all of it was focused around the range wars inflamed Centennial. Some of the story arcs – including the visit by Claude Richards and Charlotte Buckland, Levi Zendt’s visit to Pennsylvania, and Hans Brumbaugh’s labor problems – served as introductions to the main plots for the next two or three episodes. The episode started out well paced. But when Messmore Garrett’s character was introduced into the story, I got the feeling that the pacing increased in order to include the entire plot within ninety minutes. In all honesty, “The Shepherds required a longer running time of at least two hours and fifteen minutes.

But I cannot deny that the performances featured in the episode were outstanding. Timothy Dalton continued his excellent work of conveying the ambiguous nature of Oliver Seccombe, whether the latter was plotting the destruction of Messmore Garrett and the shepherds or allowing himself to be wooed by Charlotte Buckland. “The Shepherds” served as the introduction of Lynn Redgrave as part of the main cast. She did a solid job in this episode, but her time to shine will appear in the next two to three episodes. I could say the same for Brian Keith, who gave a remarkable performance as the ambiguous and frustrating sheriff, Axel Dumire. Alex Karras was superb, as always, in his portrayal of Hans Brumbaugh. Both Mark Neely and Adrienne Larussa were excellent as Levi and Lucinda’s children, Martin and Clemma. The two did a great job in conveying how their characters dealt with the stigma of being mixed blood. Gregory Harrison and Christina Raines shone once more in the wonderful and poignant scene that featured Levi’s departure from Centennial by train.

William Atherton stepped into the role of Jim Lloyd for the first time and did a great job, especially in a scene that featured his desperate attempt to convince Amos Calendar to give up working for Garrett. Speaking of Amos Calendar, I thought Jesse Vint gave one of the better performances in this episode in a scene in which he convinces Jim to seek revenge for Nate and Bufe’s deaths. While watching Glenn Turman and Les Lannom portray Nate Pearson and Bufe Coker for the last time, it occurred to me that their characters had come a long way since setting eyes upon each other for the first time in “The Longhorns”. And both gave beautiful performances, as their characters prepared to meet death during the shootout with Pettis boys.

The running time for “The Shepherds” was very frustrating for me. I believe the episode’s transcript would have been better served with a longer running time. But as far as I am concerned, this was the only drawback to the episode. I believe it is still one of the more exciting and fascinating episodes in “CENTENNIAL”, thanks to director Virgil Vogel and screenwriter Charles Larson.

“ONCE UPON A TIME”: The Frustration of an Outlaw Queen Shipper

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“ONCE UPON A TIME”: THE FRUSTRATION OF AN OUTLAW QUEEN SHIPPER

The latest plot development of ABC’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” has left me in a state of frustration. This plot development . . . or twist has to do with the relationship between the characters Mayor Regina Mills aka the Evil Queen and Robin Hood aka Robin of Locksley. And the ironic thing is that my frustration is not centered on the actual plot twist, but has a good deal to do with the fan reaction to it.

I guess we all know what happened. In a previous episode called (4.17) “Heart of Gold”, Regina learned from her former mentor, Mr. Gold aka Rumpelstiltskin that not only was her half-sister Zelena aka the Wicked Witch of the West was still alive, she had been impersonating Maid Marian since the second half of the Season Three episode, (3.22) “There’s No Place Like Home”. After being defeated by Regina in (3.20) “Kansas”, Zelena was murdered by a vengeful Rumpelstiltskin, who wanted her dead in retaliation for his son’s death. However, after stabbing Zelena, the latter transformed into essence and eventually opened the time portal she had planned to use to wipe Regina, Snow White, Emma and young Henry Mills from existence. Zelena reformed into human shape in the Enchanted Forest past and followed Emma and Killian Jones aka Captain Hook around. She saw that Emma had decided to change the timeline and save the real Maid Marian from execution on the Evil Queen’s order. Zelena took the opportunity to kill Marian when Emma and Hook were distracted and allow them to drag her to Storybrooke and the 21st century.

In (4.11) “Heroes and Villains”, “Marian” decided that she no longer wanted to be with Robin, since he seemed to be very much in love with Regina. However, the Snow Queen’s freezing spell, which was cast on Zelena in (4.03) “Rocky Road”, began affecting the latter . . . despite the former’s death in the previous episode, (4.10) “Shattered Sight”. Regina insisted that she and Robin end their romance for good and for him to accompany “Marian” out of Storybrooke to take care of her and Roland. In “Heart of Gold”, both she and Rumpelstiltskin learned that “Marian” was Zelena. When Regina accompanied Emma on a road trip to find Maleficent’s daughter in (4.19) “Lily”, they end up in New York City. Regina managed to expose “Marian” as Zelena to a very surprised Robin. But she received her own surprise when Zelena revealed that she was pregnant with Robin’s child.

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Not only did this revelation send shock waves throughout the “ONCE UPON A TIME” fandom, it also exposed some very interesting reactions to this plot twist. Well . . . I did not find these fan reactions “interesting” per se, merely annoying. I was surprised by the number of hostile reactions directed at Robin by the show’s fans. Especially the Outlaw Queen (Regina/Robin) fans. They accused show runners Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis of bad writing. They labeled Zelena as something of a cross between a psychotic monster and a slut. But most of their hostility seemed to be directed at Robin. They accused him of stupidity, claiming that he should have known that his wife was not the real Maid Marian. They accused him of being betraying Regina’s love. Some idiots even accused Robin of being fickle in regard to his feelings about Regina. Some fans even wondered how Regina could ever forgive Robin for choosing to be with “Marian” over staying in Storybrooke with her. When I read these complaints and accusations, I could not help but shake my head in disbelief. Does anyone understand what a story is about? Anyone? Did anyone understand what kind of man Robin was . . . or the era that he came from?

I wonder how many of the “ONCE UPON A TIME” fans were aware that Robin was not a veteran of the 21st century like Regina, the Charming family and most of Storybrooke’s citizens. Mind you, he had experienced the 21st century longer than “Marian” (let us assume for a brief moment that we are talking about the real Marian). That is why Regina had convinced him to leave Storybrooke with “Marian” and Roland in the first place. In her mind, “Marian” had no real experience with the 21st century – in Storybrooke and elsewhere. And Roland is a mere child. Regina believed and Robin realized that neither would have been able to survive the outside world on their own. It was either accompany “Marian” and Roland to New York or allow “Marian to die from Ingrid’s curse.

Did anyone ever understood the era that Robin came from? He came from a period in time that believed in honoring obligations. You know . . . . doing the right thing in the eyes of society, instead of doing what you want to do with no regard to the consequences. Even Regina came from that period, despite her questionable moral compass and three decades in late 20th and early 21st centuries Maine. When Zelena revealed her true identity to Rumpelstiltskin, she informed the latter that she had hoped to ruin Regina’s happiness by making Robin fall in love with her (as “Marian”). However, Zelena realized that she could not use Robin’s past life with Marian and simply seduce him. His feelings for Regina kept getting in the way. In fact, he spent a good deal of their initial time in New York mourning over the end of his relationship with Regina and causing a good deal of tension between him and “Marian”. In the end, it took conversations with both Zelena and Rumpelstiltskin to make Robin believe he had to put Regina behind him for good and try to rebuild his old family for the sake of peace. Zelena saw Regina’s image on Robin’s cell phone and went into a rant about how his feelings for Regina prevented them from trying to re-establish their lives together in New York (actually, I do wonder how long it took them to get to New York without a car). In other words, Zelena dumped a massive guilt trip on Robin. It did not help that Rumpelstiltskin’s advice about finding happiness wherever he can find it led Robin to believe that he needed to make due with what his life had provided and try to form a stable family life with “Marian” and Roland.

And when Robin found out that “Marian” was Zelena, in his mind he still could not leave her. Especially since he believes that she is pregnant with his child. I doubt very much that Robin cares for Zelena. Chances are he is probably upset that she had deceived him . . . and probably killed the real Marian. But he is also thinking of his unborn child . . . that is if Zelena is actually pregnant. I simply do not believe that Robin is the type of many who would shirk his own responsibilities. He is simply not the deadbeat type. He obviously feels obligated to take care of his unborn child, whether he wants to or not. Robin is nothing like Zelena’s own father, the gardener who had seduced and abandoned Cora after she became pregnant. And for this, along with his decision to take care of “Marian” and Roland in New York City, Robin is being criticized by many fans.

Personally, I find this anger toward Robin rather baffling. When the character was first introduced, no one had a problem with his “code of honor”, along with his open-mindedness (especially toward Regina). But when it got in the way of a“happily ever after” with Regina – THEIR decision that he needed leave Storybrooke with “Marian” and his refusal to give up on the child he had conceived with “Marian”/Zelena – they dumped all sorts or ire on the man. These fans want him to be a good man . . . as long as his moral code does not get in the way of what they conceive as a perfect romance with Regina. Hypocritical much? Worse, they are now questioning Robin’s true feelings for Regina. Why? Because he had moved past Regina . . . too fast. Robin never really moved past Regina. He simply adjusted to a new life and situation. He is still in love with her. Although it took him a while, Robin came to the conclusion that any kind of life with Regina will always be over as long as “Marian” remains affected by Ingrid’s spell. And since “Marian” is still his wife, with whom he still shares a son . . . This is how Zelena was finally able to garner some kind of affection and intimacy with him, after her previously failed efforts to get him to fall in love with her. And she was only able to achieve this, disguised as Marian. Now, she has an unborn child as a weapon to keep Regina and Robin apart. How long this will last, I have no idea.

Personally, I believe this whole situation with Robin and Zelena is karmic payback for Regina. She is paying the price for using the curse (along with Princess Abigail/Kathryn Nolan) to disrupt Snow and Charming’s relationship. Just as Snow and Charming are experiencing karmic payback for not only taking an unborn Lily, but for using it to manipulate Emma’s own moral compass. In fact, I suspect their earlier loss of Emma through the curse might be payback for kidnapping Lily. Even Emma has experienced karmic payback for giving away Henry (even though her action is not a crime). After all, he will never be completely hers. Never. The same could be said for Regina, who was responsible for the Charmings being forced to give up Emma. And for a brief moment, I believe Emma experienced karmic payback for car theft, when Lily drove away with the yellow Volkswagen bug – the same car that she and Neal had stolen in Portland. It remains to be seen if Emma and the other characters will experience consequences for their other questionable actions.

Following the news of Zelena’s pregnancy, cries that Outlaw Queen was through were posted on the Internet – despite the fact that the series’ run was far from over. These naysayers still believe that Robin needs to dump his “code of honor” in order to have a trouble-free relationship with Regina. They also accused Horowitz and Kitsis of transforming “ONCE UPON A TIME” into a soap opera. HUH? Who are they kidding? The series has always been a combination of a fantasy-adventure and SOAP OPERA. I mean . . . really! The number of bat-shit crazy story arcs and plot twists that have popped up on this show, since its debut in the Fall of 2011 is mind boggling. The most obvious aspect of this series’ soap operish trait is Henry Mills’ crazy family tree. His mother is the first born of Snow White and Prince Charming. His father is Rumpelstiltskin’s son. His step-grandmother is Belle (from “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST”) His paternal grandfather is Peter Pan, who proved to be the most evil and selfish character on this show, so far. His adoptive mother and step-great-grandmother is the Evil Queen. Robin Hood almost became his adoptive father (and he still might by the series’ end). There is a chance that Captain Hook, who had an affair with his paternal grandmother, might become his stepfather. The Queen of Hearts (Cora Mills) is his adoptive grandmother. And the Wicked Witch of the West (Zelena Mills) is his adoptive aunt. I mean . . . what the fuck? Is this bat-shit crazy or what? How can any complain about the latest plot development between Robin and Zelena, when the series has been full of these crazy and soap operish plot twists since it began? Quality writing has never been the hallmark of this series.

Part of me suspect that today’s fans of movies, television and novels long for fictional romances that are trouble free? But why? What is it about today’s audiences that they cannot deal with any kind of emotional conflict or drama between a romantic couple? What is this stupid need for an established couple to be emotionally trouble free and only deal with external threats? It is just so fucking pathetic. It seems as if no one understand or appreciates real storytelling these days. I suspect this is what people really want:

“A couple or family are emotionally secure and lack any hints of moral ambiguity whatsoever. They never fight, make questionable judgments or endure emotional conflicts whatsoever. Instead, all of the conflicts they endure are from an external threat, which is quickly dealt with by the end of a television episode or a movie.

In other words, they want ideal relationships with not moral ambiguity whatsoever and quickly resolved story arcs. I cannot even count the number of times I have spotted comments by television, movie and literary fans on the Internet, who long for an idealized and trouble-free romance between two fictional characters. And I not only fear that storytellers – in all mediums – might give them what they want, but that today’s culture is really going down the drain.

It is rather ironic that when Regina and Robin finally became romantically involved in late Season Three, some fans had complained that their romance seemed a bit too rushed. I had suggested that their story might be far from over. Ever since Emma and Hook brought “Marian”/Zelena to Storybrooke, I proved to be right. But now, these same fans are complaining over the numerous ways that Horowitz and Kitsis seemed to be complicating Regina and Robin’s romance. I swear . . . people can be incredibly fickle.

“LOST RETROSPECT”: (5.02) “The Lie”

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“LOST” RETROSPECT: (5.02) “The Lie”

Season Five of ABC’s “LOST” has always struck me as the series’ Odd Man Out. It is not the first season to break the rules of the series’ format. Season Four not only featured flashbacks, but also flash forwards. But Season Five seemed to be all over the place. And I believe this was due to the cast being split up for the first half of its season.

Before I talk about the season’s second episode, (5.02) “The Lie”, I feel I should do a recap of what led to its events. As many of the show’s fans know, at least five of the original Oceanic Flight 815 survivors made it off the island. They were Dr. Jack Shephard, Kate Austen, Sayid Jarrah, Sun-Hwa Kwon, and Hugo “Hurley” Reyes. Five others inhabitants also managed to leave – including Claire Littleton’s son Aaron, who was born on the island; Desmond Hume, who had been stranded on the island for three years; former Others leader Benjamin Linus, who left around the same time as the Oceanic survivors; Frank Lapidus, an airline pilot who had been hired to join an expedition traveling to the island aboard a freighter called the Kahana; and John Locke, whose later departure would be revealed in details in a future episode. The Season Four finale, (4.12 – 4.14) “There’s No Place Like Home”, viewers discovered that the original five survivors, Desmond and young Aaron were floating in a Zodiac raft, when they were picked up by a yacht owned by Desmond’s love, Penny Widmore. While Desmond and Frank remained aboard Penny’s yacht; Jack, Kate, Sayid, Sun, Hurley and young Aaron arrived on Fiji with a cover story about Oceanic 815’s crash and how they ended there. They became known as “the Oceanic Six”.

The first half of Season Five seemed to be divided into two major time period. The episodes and scenes featuring the survivors back on the island are set during the time following the Oceanic Six’s departure from the island and how they dealt with the various inhabitants they encountered, while flashing back and forth through time. Rather confusing . . . eh? The episodes and scenes featuring the Oceanic Six focused on their lives nearly three years after being off the island and Benjamin Linus’ efforts to get them to return. “The Lie” continued the story of the Oceanic Six during the latter period of those three years and the efforts of the island castaways to survive the constant shifts in time, which seemed to have caused a good deal of upheaval for them.

In this particular episode, Hurley finds himself labeled as a fugitive, when the police blames him for the deaths of two men whom Sayid had killed in the previous episode, (5.01) “Because You Left”. With a barely conscious Sayid as his companion, Hurley appears at the Reyes family home and seeks refuge from the police with his parents. During his stay, he reveals to the latter the truth behind the lies concocted by Jack Shephard for the media and Oceanic Airlines. Meanwhile, Jack, who is forced to deal with withdrawal symptoms, and Ben try to round up the other Oceanic Six members and John Locke for their return to the island. According to former Other and island inhabitant, Eloise Hawking, Ben has seventy (70) hours to get them on a plane for the South Pacific. In the previous episode, two men had approached Kate for a blood sample to determine Aaron Littleton’s bloodline. Fearful that Aaron might be taken away from her, Kate decides to go on the run with the toddler. However, a visit from Sun-Hwa Kwon prevents her from doing so. And when Kate tells her about the two men, Sun suggests that she takes excessive steps to prevent them from taking Aaron.

“The Lie” also featured the further adventures of those castaways left behind. Unlike those who had managed to leave the island, their story is set two to three years earlier – following Ben Linus and the Oceanic Six’s departure. “Because You Left”revealed that when Ben left by turning that Frozen Donkey Wheel inside the DHARMA Orchid Station, those left behind found themselves flashing back and forth through time. In “The Lie”, the remaining castaways attempt to start a fire at the old beach camp. Daniel, who had instructed a past Desmond Hume to find Eloise Hawking, join the others before they are attacked by the Others with a barrage of flaming arrows. Fortunately for James “Sawyer” Ford and Juliet Burke, John Locke comes to their rescue before they can be killed.

Wow! That seemed a lot for one particular episode. Was “The Lie” supposed to part of a two-part episode with “Because You Left”? If not, one could easily describe this episode as convoluted. There seemed to be at least three . . . perhaps four story arcs going on. At least a few of the episode’s story arcs seemed to relate to its title. Hurley and Sayid’s stay at the Reyes home and the former’s confession to his mother about the lies Jack had concocted for the media and Oceanic Airlines seemed to be one. I could also say the same about the story arc featuring Kate’s anxiety over losing Aaron. And Daniel did fail to tell Sawyer and Juliet that he had instruct the past Desmond to pay a visit to Eloise Hawking. The episode’s title seemed to suggest there were consequences in the Oceanic Six’s lies about their survival of the Flight 815 crash, their time on the island and return to civilization. But honestly, these consequences only seemed apparent in two story arcs – Hurley’s survival guilt and Kate’s anxiety over losing Aaron.

The consequences of Oceanic Six’s lies seemed to stem in the episode’s flashback aboard Penny Widmore’s yacht, where Jack presented the story he planned to tell Oceanic Airlines and the media. There were two very interesting reactions to his revelations. Hurley seemed very reluctant to accept Jack’s lies, making it clear that he found them unnecessary. But . . . being Hurley, he caved in from Jack’s pressure to accept the false story for them to tell Oceanic Airlines and spent the next three years being haunted by his decision and the lies, until he finally confessed them to his mother. Another interesting reaction to Jack’s suggestion came from Kate, who seemed unusually quick to accept it. Did Kate believe that his suggestion enabled her to pretend to be Aaron’s mother? This seemed rather surprising to me when “LOST” was still on the air, considering that between the time she helped Claire Littleton give birth to Aaron in (1.20) “Do No Harm” and Oceanic Six’s flight from the island in (4.14) “There’s No Place Like Home, Part III”, Kate had expressed very little interest in Claire or Aaron. Yet, nearly three years later found Kate willing to flee from Los Angeles with Aaron, due to her fear that the courts would have a legal reason to take him away from her. These two story arcs seemed to have the strongest connections to the episode’s title.

However, I had trouble making any connections between the Oceanic Six’s lies and the other story arcs. If there were any connections, they struck me as a bit weak – in the case of Ben’s visit to Eloise Hawking and the butcher shop that was holding Locke’s body, or barely non-existent – the remaining survivors’ travails with time traveling. Mind you, I found both story arcs fascinating. Ben’s visit with Ms. Hawkings eventually played out in a near future episode. And the story arc surrounding those left behind on the island proved to be action-filled and very exciting. But again, their story arcs seemed to have a stronger connection to the island incidents in “There’s No Place Like Home” than the Oceanic Six’s lies. Speaking of the latter, I do have to give Horowitz, Kitsis and director Jack Bender for injecting a good deal of mystery regarding the island inhabitants’ time traveling experiences, along with both drama and action. I am sure that many viewers were on the edge of their seats over the identities of the castaways’ attackers – especially the two uniformed men who tried to kill Sawyer and Juliet.

But the crux of the episode seemed to be all about the climax over Hurley’s emotional dilemma over his return to Los Angeles, along with his guilt over leaving behind many of his fellow castaways. I have rather mixed feelings about this particular story arc. On one hand, I thought Hurley’s confession to Mrs. Reyes about the island seemed like an emotional payoff of his survivor guilt that first manifested in the flash forward scenes from the Season Four episode, (4.01) “The Beginning of the End”. But Horowitz and Kitsis undermined this emotional payoff by having Hurley turning himself in to the authorities, after Ben Linus confronted him about returning to the island. What was the point of that? Ben gave him the opportunity to finally return to the island and put his mind at ease over leaving some of his fellow castaways behind . . . and “poof” . . . he decides to ignore Ben’s offer? Even after Ana-Lucia Cortez’s ghost had warned him to avoid the police?

There are some who believe that “The Lie” is an unevenly paced episode. Perhaps. I thought the episode featured too many story arcs. And if it was supposed to be the second half of a two-part episode, I wish that show runners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindehof had not given the two episodes different titles . . . with different themes. Their actions only left me in a conundrum over whether “The Lie” is a two-part episode or not. Regardless, the opening episodes of Season Five struck me as unevenly handled, despite some very memorable scenes and performances, especially from Jorge Garcia.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

I have never been a major fan of Wes Anderson’s films in the past. Well . . . I take that back. I have never been a fan of his films, with the exception of one – namely 2007’s “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. Perhaps my inability to appreciate most of Anderson’s films was due to my inability to understand his sense of humor . . . or cinematic style. Who knows? However, after viewing “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”, the number of Anderson films of which I became a fan, rose to two.

Written and directed by Anderson, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” is about the adventures of one Gustave H., a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka during the early 1930s; and his most trusted friend, a lobby boy named Zero Moustafa. Narrated from a much older Zero, the movie, which was inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, begins in the present day in which a teenage girl stares at a monument inside a cemetery, who holds a memoir in her arms, written by a character known as “The Author”. The book narrates a tale in which “the Author” as a younger man visited the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 Zubrowka. There, he met the hotel’s elderly owner, Zero Moustafa, who eventually tells him how he took ownership of the hotel and why he is unwilling to close it down.

The story shifts to 1932, in which a much younger Zero was one of the hotel’s lobby boys, freshly arrived in Zubrowka as a war refugee. Zero becomes acquainted with Monsieur Gustave H., who is a celebrated concierge known for sexually pleasing some of the hotel’s wealthy guests – namely those who are elderly and romantically desperate. One of Gustave’s guests is the very wealthy Madame Céline Villeneuve “Madame D” Desgoffe und Taxis. Although Zubrowka is on the verge of war, Gustave becomes more concerned with news that “Madame D” has suddenly died. He and Zero travels across the country to attend her wake and the reading of her will. During the latter, Gustave learns that “Madame D” has bequeathed to him a very valuable painting called “Boy with Apple”. This enrages her family, all of whom hoped to inherit it. Not long after Gustave and Zero’s return to the Grand Budapest Hotel, the former is arrested and imprisoned for the murder of the elderly woman, who had died of strychnine poisoning. Gustave and Zero team up to help the former escape from prison and learn who had framed him for murder.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” not only proved to be very popular with critics, the film also earned four Golden Globe nominations and won one award – Best Film: Musical or Comedy. It also earned nine Academy Awards and won four. Not bad for a comedy about a mid-European concierge in the early 1930s. Did the movie deserved its accolades? In spades. It is the only other Wes Anderson movie I have ever developed a real love for. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. When I first heard about the movie, I did not want to see it. I did not even want to give it a chance. Thank God I did. The movie not only proved to be my favorite Anderson film, it also became one of my favorite 2014 flicks.

Is “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” perfect? For a while, I found myself hard pressed to think of anything about this movie that may have rubbed me the wrong way. I realized there was one thing with which I had a problem – namely the way this movie began. Was it really necessary to star the movie with a young girl staring at a statue of “the Author”, while holding his book? Was it really necessary to have “the Older Author” begin the movie’s narration, before he is replaced by his younger self and the older Zero Moustafa? I realized what Anderson was trying to say. He wanted to convey to movie audiences that M. Gustave and Zero’s story will continue on through the Author’s book and they will never be forgotten. But I cannot help but wonder if Anderson could have conveyed his message without this gimmicky prologue.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” may not be perfect. But I would certainly never describe it as a mediocre or even moderately good film. This movie deserved the Academy Award nominations and wins it earned . . . and many more. It was such a joy to watch it that not even its angst-filled moments could dampen my feelings. Anderson did a superb job of conveying his usual mixture of high comedy, pathos and quixotic touches in this film. Now, one might point out this is the director’s usual style, which makes it nothing new. I would agree, except . . . I believe that Anderson’s usual style perfectly blended with the movie’s 1930s Central European setting. For me, watching “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” seemed like watching an Ernst Lubitsch movie . . . only with profanity and a bit of sexual situations and nudity.

I have only watched a handful of Lubitsch’s movies and cannot recall any real violence or political situations featured in any of his plots. Wait . . . I take that back. His 1942 movie, “TO BE OR NOT TO BE” featured strong hints of violence, war and a touch of infidelity. However, I believe Anderson went a little further in his own depictions of war, violence and sex. But this did not harm the movie one bit. After all, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” was released in the early 21st century. Sex and violence is nothing new in today’s films . . . even in highly acclaimed ones. Despite the presence of both in the film, Anderson still managed to infuse a great deal of wit and style into his plot. This was especially apparent in two sequences – Zero’s initial description of M. Gustave and the Grand Budapest Hotel; and that marvelous sequence in which a fraternal order of Europe’s hotel concierges known as the Society of the Crossed Keys helped Gustave and Zero evade the police and find the one person who can who can clear Gustave’s name and help him retrieve his legacy from “Madame D”. I especially enjoyed the last sequence. In my eyes, Lubitsch could not have done it any better.

There were other aspects of “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” that enhanced its setting. First of all, I have to give kudos to Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock for their work on the movie. Stockhausen, who also served as the production designer for the Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, did a superb job of reflecting the movie’s two major time periods – Central Europe in the early 1930s and the late 1960s. Pinnock served as the film’s set decorator. Both Stockhausen and Pinnock shared the Academy Award for Best Production Design. Milena Canonero won an Oscar for the film’s costume designs. I have to admit that she deserved. I feel she deserved it, because she did an excellent job of creating costumes not only for the characters, but also their class positions and the movie’s settings. She did not simply resort to re-creating the fashion glamour of the 1930s for the sake of eye candy. Robert Yeoman’s photography for the movie really impressed me. I found it sharp and very atmospheric for the movie’s setting. I can see why he managed to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.

I was shocked when I learned that Ralph Fiennes failed to get an Academy Award nomination for his performance as M. Gustave. What on earth was the Academy thinking? I can think of at least two actor who were nominated for Best Actor for 2014, who could have been passed over. Gustave is Fiennes’ masterpiece, as far as I am concerned. I never realized he had such a spot-on talent for comedy. And although his Gustave is one of the funniest characters I have seen in recent years, I was also impressed by the touch of pathos he added to the role. Another actor, who I also believe deserved an Oscar nomination was Tony Revolori. Where on earth did Anderson find this kid? Oh yes . . . Southern California. Well . . . Revolori was also superb as the young Zero, who not only proved to be a very devoted employee and friend to M. Gustave, but also a very pragmatic young man. Like Fiennes, Revolori had both an excellent touch for both comedy and pathos. Also, both he and Fiennes proved to have great screen chemistry.

Revolori also shared a solid screen chemistry with actress Saoirse Ronan, who portrayed Zero’s lady love, pastry chef Agatha. Ronan’s charming performance made it perfectly clear why Zero and even M. Gustave found Agatha’s sharp-tongue pragmatism very alluring. Another charming performance came from Tilda Swinton, who portrayed one of Gustave’s elderly lovers. It seemed a shamed that Swinton’s appearance was short-lived. I found her portrayal of the wealthy, yet insecure and desperate Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis rather interesting. Adrien Brody gave an interesting performance as Dmitri Desgoffe und Taxis, Madame Villeneuve’s son. I have never seen Brody portray a villain before. But I must say that I was impressed by the way he effectively portrayed Dmitri as a privileged thug. Willem Dafoe was equally interesting as Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin, J.G. Jopling. And Edward Norton struck me as both funny and scary as The movie also featured first-rate performances from Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban and especially Bill Murray as Monsieur Ivan, Gustave’s main contact with the Society of the Crossed Keys. The movie had three narrators – Tom Wilkinson as the Older Author, Jude Law as the Younger Author and F. Murray Abraham as the Older Zero. All three did great jobs, but I noticed that Wilkinson’s time as narrator was very short-lived.

What else can I say about “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”? It is one of the few movies in which its setting truly blended with Wes Anderson’s off-kilter humorous style. The movie not only benefited from great artistry from the crew and superb performances from a cast led by Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, but also from the creative pen and great direction from Wes Anderson. Now, I am inspired to try my luck with some of his other films again.

Maqluba

Maqluba

Below is a short article about a casserole dish known as Maqluba:

MAQLUBA

Maquluba is a traditional casserole dish of the Arab Levant. It is traditional in many countries throughout the Middle East. The ingredients for the dish can vary from one recipe to another. However, it basically consists of meat, eggplant, and various vegetables; which are all cooked under a layer of rice. The ingredients are placed in a pot, which is flipped upside-down, when served. This is why the dish is called Maqluba, which means “upside down”. Maqluba is traditionally accompanied by yogurt and/or cucumber salad.

I first learned about Maqluba, while watching the BBC series, “THE SUPERSIZERS EAT . . . MEDIEVAL”. According to the episode, the dish certainly existed around the 12th and 13th centuries, when European soldiers first stumbled across it, while they fought in the Middle East, during The Crusades.

Below is a recipe for Maqluba that mainly features chicken and rice from the Mina website:

Maqluba

Ingredients

1 ½ cups Rice, divided
¼ cup Olive oil, divided
1 Large eggplant
1 Large zucchini
Salt and pepper
1 Onion, chopped
2 Cloves garlic, minced
1 lb Lean Ground Chicken
½ tsp Cinnamon
Pinch Nutmeg
1 tsp Allspice
1 tsp Garam masala
1 Large tomato, sliced
1 (19 oz) Can chickpeas, drained
2 ½ cups Chicken broth

Directions

SOAK rice in water for 30 minutes or until ready to use.

CUT eggplant and zucchini lengthwise into ¼ inch thick strips. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, sauté until tender, about 1-2 minutes per side and set aside.

HEAT 1 tbsp olive oil in the same pan and add onion and garlic. Sauté for 2-4 minutes or until tender. Add chicken and spices and cook for 8-10 minutes, breaking up the meat with the back of a wooden spoon until golden brown.

DRAIN rice and set aside.

GREASE a 16 cup heavy bottomed pot with olive oil. Layer zucchini and eggplant alternately in the bottom of the pot and up the sides. Top eggplant and zucchini in bottom of pot with sliced tomatoes. Sprinkle ½ cup (125 mL) rice over the tomatoes followed by chicken mixture, chickpeas and any remaining eggplant or zucchini. Press to compact. Sprinkle in remaining rice and press down again. Pour in chicken stock and cover.

BRING the mixture to a boil, reduce heat and simmer on low for 45-50 minutes. If mixture gets too dry before the rice is finished cooking add additional chicken broth or water and simmer until absorbed and rice is cooked.

REMOVE from the heat and let rest, covered for 15 minutes.

REMOVE lid from the pot and place a large platter upside down over the pot. Carefully invert the mixture onto the platter and serve.

Tips: The mixture may not hold its shape completely but that’s okay, simply patch it up before serving. It’s delicious either way.

Serving Suggestion: Serve with plain yogurt on the side. Garnish with pine nuts and chopped parsley.

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“BABYLON 5″ RETROSPECT: (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”

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“BABYLON 5″ RETROSPECT: (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”

About eighteen months ago, I had posted a list of my favorite Season Two episodes from the 1993-1998 syndicate series,“BABYLON 5″. And one of those episodes happened to be (2.16) “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”. For the sake of sentiment, I recently re-watched the episode to see if my views on it had changed.

The series’ second season – titled “The Coming of Shadows” – introduced a new character to the “BABYLON 5″ universe. Captain John J. Sheridan first appeared in the season’s premiere episode, (2.01) “Points of Departure” to replace Babylon 5’s first commanding officer, Commander Jeffrey Sinclair. Like the latter, Captain Sheridan was a veteran of Earth Alliance’s last major conflict, the Earth-Minbari War, which was fought over a decade before the series’ setting. Sheridan was the only Earth military commander who scored a major victory over the Minbari, who possessed superior forces and weapons. Sheridan was also a married man, who became a widower following the death of his wife, Anna Sheridan. Two years earlier, Anna was killed while serving as a member of a planetary expedition aboard a ship called the Icarus for a mission to explore an obscure planet called Z’ha’dum.

The episode (2.02) “Revelations” dealt with Sheridan allegedly coming to terms with Anna’s death. But the events of “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” proved otherwise. The story began with the arrival of a Human named Mr. Morden to Babylon 5. Following his first appearance in the Season One episode, (1.13) “Signs and Portents”, Mr. Morden managed to form an alliance with Ambassador Londo Mollari of Centauri Prime. Using his connections with an ancient and powerful race of aliens known as “the Shadows” – whose homeworld happened to be Z’ha’dum, Morden helped the Centauri deal with its main enemy, the Narns. During Morden’s latest visit to Babylon 5, Security Chief Michael Garibaldi unintentionally identifies him as a regular visitor to the station during a private conversation with Sheridan. When the captain realizes that Morden had been a member of the Icarus expedition that led to Anna’s death, he has the man arrested and placed in a holding cell. Sheridan becomes obsessed with learning about the details of Anna’s fate; and also the details behind Morden’s survival and failure to inform Earth Alliance. This obsession leads the good captain to break security rules, alienate members of command staff and attract the attention of the Centauri, Minbar and Vorlon ambassadors.

During my latest viewing of “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”, I tried to pinpoint what I did not like about it. I managed to find one aspect that struck me as unappealing. Sheridan’s manipulation of resident telepath Talia Winters’ only meeting with Morden struck me as rather forced. David J. Eagle’s direction and Christopher Franke’s score tried a little too hard in making this scene dramatic by amping up the suspense. The scene’s build up struck me as over-the-top that it almost overshadowed the pay-off of Talia and Morden’s actual meeting. It is a flaw I have spotted in other “BABYLON 5″episodes – even in some of its best.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” may not have be perfect, but I believe it might be one of the best episodes of Season Two . . . and in the entire season. The ironic thing is that hardly any action occurred in this episode, aside from a well deserved slap that Sheridan received from Talia. And yet, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum not only helped drive the series’ main narrative forward, it also foreshadowed two major story arcs in future episodes – Sheridan’s conflict with the Shadows and Garabaldi’s role as Babylon 5’s security chief. It also foreshadowed a minor plot – namely Morden’s future fate. These story lines are major examples of series creator J. Michael Straczynski’s use of foreshadow in his writing. And as far as I am concerned, no one else did it better other than George Lucas for his “STAR WARS” movie franchise.

However, I believe the best thing about “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” was the development of the John Sheridan character. Many fans had not been pleased when Bruce Boxleitner replaced the late Michael O’Hare, who portrayed Jeffrey Sinclair, as the series’ new leading man. They accused the Sheridan character of being lightweight and dubbed him with the nickname of “Captain Smiley”. Personally, I never had any problems with Sheridan before this episode. But this is the first time the series ever focused upon the negative aspects of Sheridan’s character. And I found it very interesting. “Revelations” had revealed that Sheridan had yet to recover from his wife’s death. “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” revealed that Sheridan’s inability to recover from his grief brought out the worst of him – his temper, his penchant for brooding, his stubborness, his talent for manipulation and most importantly, his ruthlessness. Sheridan’s reputation as “Captain Smiley” disappeared after this episode. For good.

The episode also featured a minor story line regarding the arrival of an Earth Alliance official named Pierce Macabee. The latter represented Earth Alliance’s Ministry of Peace, which served as a security and propaganda machine for President Morgan Clark’s administration. Macabee arrived at Babylon 5 to recruit the station’s crew into Earth Alliance’s new paramilitary organization, Nightwatch. These members were instructed to uncover and report on what they perceived to be “subversive” activities – namely open criticism and defiance of Clark’s Administration. This story line was introduced in such a subtle manner that it almost seemed like afterthought. Almost. It allowed audiences to hear Macabee’s speech about Nightwatch and watch him recruit some of the station’s crew – including Zack Allen, who served with Babylon 5’s security force under Garibaldi. Although Zack joined Nightwatch simply to earn extra credits, his decision will prove to have a major impact upon the series’ main narrative, early in Season Three. The Nightwatch story arc proved to be another example of Straczynski’s talent for using a minor story line as foreshadow. Very few writers and producers seemed capable of using this narrative device with any strong effect. Pity.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” also featured some first-rate performances. Regular cast members such as Claudia Christian, Mira Furlan, Jerry Doyle and Richard Biggs gave strong supportive performances. Although I was critical of the scene featuring Talia Winters’ encounter with Mr. Morden, I certainly had no problems with Andrea Thompson’s performance. The actress did an excellent job in conveying Talia’s horror and later, outrage over Sheridan’s actions. Jeff Conway really made the role of Zack Allen his own in this particular episode. I have always believed that one aspect that made a performer a first-rate screen actor or actress, is his or her ability to react to other characters. Conway was very effective in utilizing this acting tool in his scenes with Boxleitner and Doyle. And his performances in scenes with certain supporting characters struck me as effective and subtle at the same time. Especially in one scene in which Zack arrested Mr. Morden. I also have to commend Alex Hyde-White for his guest-starring turn as Nightwatch recruiter, Pierce Macabee. He did a superb job in projecting the Ministry of Peace’s menace with such subtle charm.

Ed Wasser, who made such an impression as the quiet, yet menacing agent for the Shadows – Mr. Morden – in previous episodes, continued his excellent work in this episode. However, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” also featured other dimensions to Morden’s personality – fear, surprise and impatience – that Wasser conveyed with great skill. I especially enjoyed his work with both Stephen Furst and leading man Bruce Boxleitner. I have always been a fan of Furst since I first saw him in the 1978 comedy, “ANIMAL HOUSE”. His time on NBC’s “ST. ELSEWHERE” and “BABYLON 5″ revealed his talent for dramatic acting. Furst effectively combined his skills for both drama and comedy in one particular in which Centauri Ambassador Aide Vir openly expressed his dislike for Morden. It is one of my favorite moments from the series.

Although the “Captain Smiley” nickname for the John Sheridan character disappeared after “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum”first aired on television, Bruce Boxleitner’s reputation as an actor suddenly gained momentum among the series’ fans. I do not understand why. I have seen Boxleitner portray the darker aspects in previous roles very effectively. But I must say that I believe his performance in this episode may end up being regarded as one of his best. Boxleitner was superb as a ruthless Sheridan, obsessed with not only learning the truth about his wife’s death, but also Morden’s survival and revenge. It is a pity that the Emmys rarely acknowledge excellent acting or writing in the Science-Fiction/Fantasy genre.

“In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” may not be my favorite Season Two episode from “BABYLON 5″. But it is definitely my second favorite. And it is certainly one of my favorite episodes of the series. J. Michael Straczynski wrote an excellent episode about the consequences of grief for the series’ main character. Thanks to fine writing, first-rate direction and excellent performances from a talented cast – especially series lead Bruce Boxleitner.

“BOARDWALK EMPIRE”: Top Five Favorite Season Four (2013) Episodes

marriageandhunting

Below is a list of my top five favorite episodes from Season Four (2013) of HBO’s “BOARDWALK EMPIRE”:

 

“BOARDWALK EMPIRE”: TOP FIVE FAVORITE SEASON FOUR (2013) EPISODES

1 - 4.12 Farewell Daddy Blues

1. (4.12) “Farewell Daddy Blues” – In this explosive season finale, Eli Thompson’s reluctant attempt to betray Nucky to the FBI conclude unexpectedly; and the final confrontation between Chalky White and usurper Dr. Valentin Narcisse result in a double tragedy.

2 - 4.10 White Horse Pike

2. (4.10) “White Horse Pike” – Nucky’s new lady love, Sally Wheat, discovers that heroin being slipped into their bootleg shipments by Charlie Luciano and MeyerLansky at Masseria’s behest. Chalky fails to kill Narcisse and finds himself on the run with his singer/mistress Daughter Maitland.

3 - 4.05 Erlkönig

3. (4.05) “Erlkönig” – FBI Agent Warren Knox arrests valet Eddie Kessler and coerces him into betraying Nucky . . . with tragic consequences. Eli’s oldest son, Willie, contacts Nucky following his arrest for murder; and Al Capone loses his brother Frank during a violent street confrontation with Chicago law agents.

4 - 4.01 New York Sour

4. (4.01) “New York Sour” – Chalky’s lieutenant Durnsley White encounters trouble with a booking-agent and his wife; heroin addict Gillian Darmody tries to regain custody of her grandson Tommy; and Nucky makes peace with Arnold Rothstein and Joe Masseria.

5 - 4.11 Havre De Grace

5. (4.11) “Havre De Grace” – Chalky and Daughter seeks refuge at the Maryland home of his mentor, Oscar Boneau. Agent Knox pressures Eli to convince Nucky into setting up a meeting between the East Coast crime bosses for a major arrest.

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